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Have Farmer's Markets Reached a Saturation Point?

Lately around town and on Facebook, I’ve been hearing Cleveland farmers complain about poor sales at these little neighborhood farmer’s markets. The popular Canadian urban farmer, author, and vlogger, Curtis Stone just released a video about quitting farmer’s markets. Around this time last year, the Washington Post ran article about decreasing farmer’s market sales in the D.C. area. Meanwhile in the last decade, the number of farmer’s markets essentially doubled. Perhaps, we have reached a saturation point?

According to the Cleveland Food Policy Coalition, the number of farmer’s markets accepting food assistance (EBT) increased from 16 to 28 from 2015 to 2016. While sales remained relatively steady, there was a 45% decline in EBT sales per market. From my limited understanding, the increase of accepting assistance was an attempt to increase healthy food access around the metro food desert area, which is a noble cause. However looking at the cursory data, it would appear that this additional access only diluted the marketplace, rather than actually increasing the number of health food conscious EBT users.

So, what’s happening here? Why are there all these new farmer’s markets? Though I have absolutely no statistical data to back me up, I believe the answer is three-fold. One, food is trendy these days. This is evidenced in the plethora of food shows on television, which has turned everybody into self-proclaimed “foodies.” Two, there is grant money to start farmer’s markets, oozing from everywhere from philanthropic foundations all the way up to the federal level. And three, upon seeing others successes, many communities/community development corporations feel that they can find a similar success, while creating food access and even a job with their to-be christened market manager.

I’ve always been a firm believer in just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This belief rings truer every day in regards to new farmer’s markets. Instead of creating new markets, I’d rather the conversation change to something along the lines of; ask not what a farmer can do for your farmer’s market, but what your farmer’s market can do for your farmers. If your answer is less than $200 per farmer in weekly sales, please fold your operation immediately or at least at the end of the season. This would be one way to start concentrating sales again.

What else can a farmer’s market do for its farmers? Farmer’s markets could provide real infrastructure for its farmers. The current model of setting up a market in any random field or parking lot and having farmers lug a 30 pound E-Z UP tent with an additional 40 pounds of weights to hold the tent from blowing away is bunk. Rather, a building structure with extravagant things like a roof and bathroom would be nice. Examples of these markets include East Cleveland’s Coit Road Farmer’s Market, Dayton’s Second Street Market, and Ithaca’s Farmer’s Market. All of these markets also have another would be welcomed addition, parking!

Lastly, farm market managers stop wasting your budget on live music. Farmers have an almost universal disdain for this phenomenon because the volume simply gets in the way of communicating, which then hinders sales. I’ve yet to see a musician/band bring a crowd of shoppers to a farmer’s market (this is not the case with yoga classes however). That $50 or $200 weekly expense would go much farther in solving hunger if it were spent at actual farmer’s tables and given to food pantries. Farmers inherently know this.

It will be interesting to see how all of these farmer’s markets shake out in the near and distant future. A handful of farmers have already told me that this is their last year for markets. Instead, many are focusing on improving personal customer relationships for direct sales. All I ask is when they do shake out, please don’t blame the farmer.

Some additional reading and viewing:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/for-some-growers-farmers-markets-just-arent-what-they-used-to-be/2016/06/21/c5d93644-3271-11e6-8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html?utm_term=.36c06eabe478

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfTnK-ygaxg

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Horticulture Specialist

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